My prowess in the Italian language is limited to pointing and a lot of exaggerated nodding. For the umpteenth time of my life, I wish I were one of those cool ethnic kids from school, except this time not because of lunchbox envy. Upon arrival, the huge majority of Italians I encounter immediately speak English, thus excusing me from spewing my own brand of disrespectful pigeon-Italian. Inexplicably, everyone assumes I am Swedish or English. When I tell them I am Australian, I am greeted with beams and winks, usually with a: ‘Ah, yes! Skippy, yes!’ I don’t have the heart to tell them I’ve never seen Skippy.
Rome is a twisting jumble of modernity and history. Ruins and columns literally sprout from the side of roads. Walls older than Australia stand tall amongst sex shops and clothes shops. Scandalously busy McDonalds outlets protrude from ridiculously beautiful buildings. Nuns huddle in circles, carefully and methodically murmuring their prayers as they catch buses to the Vatican. Everywhere is a tourist’s dream, and yet it remains full of life and devoid of triteness. The Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Vatican – all these inspire gasps and admiring sighs from even the local Romans.
My diet alternates between indecently decadent and unappeasable. My breakfast is pastries covered in icing sugar and chocolate; my lunches are pizzas and breads. I eat to the point where my teeth ache at the sight of sugar. By the third week I instantly search menus for salad. I never grow tired of pasta, however, and occasionally eat it twice in one day. It’s a tricky balance of guilt and satisfaction as you eat your second gelati after walking for ten hours. Food isn’t for survival here, but a way of life.
A waiter looks genuinely shocked when I ask for just one main course. He offers me two desserts instead. I decline. Ten minutes later, he proudly displays a bottle of Limoncello and biscotti to me. He’s a seventy year old man wearing braces and a bowtie; how can I refuse? Large meals are not gluttonous indulgences here, though, but the norm.
We leave the positively steamy weather behind in Rome by car, in favour for storms in Florence. Driving in Italy is a unique experience, if you like your unique experiences to involve lots of swerving and a large indifference towards life’s fragility. After a good two hours, we arrive in Florence still on speaking terms. Florence turns out to be a romantic labyrinth of alleyways and winding streets. I have dreams of poetry and rainy mornings overlooking cobblestone squares. I have to keep buying cheap umbrellas from sellers on corners to keep moderately dry amongst the lashings of rain. This makes the galleries, book stores and cafes all the more attractive and I soon lose myself in a kaleidoscope of old books and espresso.
A series of books stalls reveal a startling amount a pornography, and more disturbingly, bits of old Nazi paraphernalia. Kiosk stalls sell vodka and cups of wine from the sidewalk. There are probably alcoholics in Italy, but alcoholism is probably something more akin to what chocoholicaism is to us. Alcohol is not considered a vice in Italy, but something to be appreciated. The Italian culture breeds healthy attitudes towards vices, such as food, smoking and alcohol. There is a lack of Western self-denial and self-irresponsibility. Italians go: ‘Shit yeah! We do it and we do it good.’ No one in Italy worries about their own mortality, because they are all busy living beautifully.